Foreign Minister Murray McCully has sought a meeting with the Nauru Government and indicated New Zealand's $2.3 million annual aid funding is under review because of growing concern about civil rights abuses.
A group of prominent legal university academics released an open letter to Mr McCully, in which they urge him to take a "more forceful approach" to Nauru and withdraw New Zealand aid funding for Nauru's justice department if the Nauru Government did not respond.
In a statement in response to the letter, Mr McCully said he had asked representatives of the Nauru Government for a meeting in Sydney next week.
"We take our responsibilities as a donor to the justice sector seriously, and we will be discussing our contribution with the Nauru government in light of recent events." New Zealand gives $2.3 million a year in aid to the justice and education sectors in Nauru. Of that $1.2 million goes toward funding its justice department.
The academics, including former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer and former Speaker Margaret Wilson, pointed to a series of civil rights abuses since a new Government was elected in 2013. Those included the removal of key members of the judiciary, the suspension of five Opposition MPs in 2014 and removal of their passports for criticising the Government in international media. Three Opposition MPs were also arrested for taking part in a protest, and the Government had passed a law prohibiting speech which has the "intent to stir up ... political hatred." It also blocked access to Facebook and hiked visa fees for foreign journalists from $200 to $8000.
The lawyers noted Mr McCully had voiced concern about developments in Nauru but opted against stronger action on the basis of assurances from Nauru. "Nothing has come of this softly softly approach and the time for a more forceful approach has arrived." The letter said it was not tenable for New Zealand to continue as the main funder of Nauru's Department of Justice and Border Control when its justice system was in such disarray. "New Zealand owes it to the citizens of Nauru to do everything it can to encourage its government to restore democracy and the rule of law."
The NZ Law Society also called for stronger action. Law Society Rule of Law Convenor Austin Forbes said the situation in Nauru was becoming intolerable. "It is time to speak out because democracy is quickly vanishing in one of New Zealand's Pacific neighbours. This cannot continue."
The Green Party MP Kennedy Graham said he agreed funding for the justice system should be withdrawn. "Basic rights are being denied in Nauru and if New Zealand continues funding its justice system, the Government sends the message that we support the flagrant abuse of power in a South Pacific neighbour."
The academics pointed to the case of Opposition MP Roland Kun, whose family had moved to New Zealand after Mr Kun's wife Dr Katy Le Roy was sacked and had her visa revoked in 2014. Dr Le Roy now worked in the civil service and Mr Kun was primary caregiver of the children but had his passport revoked when visiting Nauru so could not return.
A former magistrate in Nauru, Australian Peter Law, has called on New Zealand and Australia to encourage the Pacific Islands Forum to censure Nauru when the Forum leaders meet in Papua New Guinea in September.
Mr Law was expelled from Nauru in 2014 after the change of Government and told ABC News the Forum countries had a duty to intervene where there were breaches of democracy or the rule of law.
Labour's foreign affairs spokesman David Shearer says New Zealand's Government should take the lead on confronting Nauru's government because Australia is compromised by its use of Nauru for asylum seeker detentions.
Mr Shearer added his voice to those of legal academics, the Law Society and the Green Party all of whom have urged New Zealand to cut the $1.2 million aid it gives to Nauru's justice department over civil rights issues since a new Government came into power in 2014.
Mr Shearer said Mr McCully should take urgent action and work with the Pacific Islands Forum and other Commonwealth countries to try to restore proper democracy.
"Australia is closest to Nauru, but is compromised by its policy of paying Nauru to detain its boat people in camps."
He said actions taken against the judiciary, Opposition MPs and the media in Nauru could not be ignored.
"This amounts to the systematic dismantling of a previously democratic system."